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Of all the celebrated female figures immortalized in the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, Fanny Ainswhite Eaton remains very special and more so than any other muse. Androgenous and beautiful, Fanny’s refined Caribbean features would come to inspire some of the most famous artists of the Victorian Era. In time, art critics would come to recognize her as one of the foremost ethnic art models of her time.
Eaton's story is important. Not only does she have a rightful place among these other models, but her life and visual presence also epitomize the 'Other' in Victorian society.
— Roberto C. Ferrari, Curator of Art Properties at Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columb
Jamaican Immigrant of African Descent
Fanny Antwistle Eaton was born in St. Andrew, Surrey, Jamaica in 1835, to Matilda Foster, an unwed former plantocracy slave of African descent. Some researchers have theorized that following the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-32, and the emancipation of slaves in 1833, Foster like many others given freedom, sought a better life elsewhere because of poor labor conditions. By the 1840s, census records show mother and daughter, migrating to England. According to art curator and researcher Roberto C. Ferrai, both were living in London at the address 9 Steven’s Place in the parish of St. Pancras. Matilda’s choice to migrate to London had been a wise decision in that she had elevated her family’s standing in life, given the racial tension that remained stewing in Jamaica after a tumultuous decade of insurrection and uncertainty.
Fanny's Modeling Career at the Royal Academy of Arts
Fanny may have had very little hope. Growing up a multi-racial child was a challenge given strict Victorian standards which frowned at out-of-wedlock children. Yet at sixteen, she hired on as a servant. It’s no wonder that in 1857, she ended up marrying James Eaton, a proprietary horse cab driver. With a husband to help provide with better circumstances, she soon adjusted to marriage and motherhood, and to help make ends meet she hired herself out as an independent cleaning woman. However, it’s assumed that the work paid very little and with the worries of a growing family, she needed to supplement her family’s income. Hence, one reason she started modeling for artists at the Royal Academy of Arts.
It’s not known for certain how Fanny first came across her modeling position at the arts academy. It’s also possible that she might have worked in the home of someone associated with the arts who envisioned her potential. According to Ferrari, a more plausible scenario was through her association with Jewish artist Simeon Solomon who first captured her unique face on canvas in the painting The Mother of Moses which premiered in 1861 to the public.
... having a very fine head and figure—a good deal of Janey.
— Dante Gabriel Rossetti, describing Eaton's likeness to androgenous art model Jane Burden Morris
Androgenous Appeal Reigns Supreme
In Victorian England, the typical image of female attractiveness remained centered on Caucasian women having a porcelain complexion and vibrant flowing hair. Yet, with introducing the Pre-Raphaelite movement, a brotherhood of Oxford artists who leaned toward the unconventional, the old idealized beauty standard which marginalized other ethnicities soon faded. Instead, artists sought more exotic looking women who appeared either androgenous or buxom in figure, redefining and epitomizing the new forward-thinking artistic movement. According to Ferrari, Fanny garnered much interest from formidable art talents such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Frederick Sandys, and Robert Hawker Dowling. In his own words, the curator explains the artist’s demand for her likeness:
“Eaton’s lighter complexion drew attention to her ‘Otherness’ as being neither white nor black. Her in-between features allowed the Pre-Raphaelites to represent her as numerous exotic characters, and indeed she was portrayed by them as Hebrew, Oriental, Indian, and so on.”
In 1865, the famed aforementioned artist Rossetti sketched Eaton, rendering her earthy and enigmatic likeness to another of his preferred muses, Jane Burden Morris. One of his most famous paintings included Eaton as a background figure in The Beloved, as featured in the thumbnail layout below.
Animated Short Highlighting Fanny Eaton
- BBC Arts - Fanny Eaton: The Forgotten Pre-Raphaelite Model
Animated short about Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Eaton, who was of mixed heritage
Eaton's Later Years
Years later, by the time she turned 63, Fanny lived in Oakfield on the Isle of Wight, working as a domestic cook for a wine merchant family. By 1911, she returned to London to live with her children and grandchildren, where she died in March 1924 at eighty-nine from encroaching senility and collapse.
A Writer's Perspective
You might have noticed in the title of this article that I’ve described Fanny’s life as ‘unconventional’. It’s true. Most of the Pre-Raphaelite models lived an irregular life by Victorian standards, yet Eaton even more so because of her mixed-race identity. The many challenges she faced in life, marrying young, bearing ten children, becoming a widow in her forties. That she continued working into her silver years shows us a determined spirit and humble existence, all the while her presence remained overshadowed and underrated in the Victorian art world. Fanny did not receive the rave acclaim as other models because of the unfortunate social stigma over her ethnicity. Considering her prejudiced disadvantages, this art model deserves the utmost recognition. Fanny Antwistle Eaton remains my absolute favorite Pre-Raphaelite art model.
Cited Sources & Works
- Lydia Figes, "Fanny Eaton: Jamaican Pre-Raphaelite Muse" (23 Oct 2019) Art UK, Retrieved 14 Jan 2021
- The Rossetti Archive
- The British Museum
- Columbia/Academic Commons: Roberto C. Ferrari, Fanny Eaton: The 'Other' Pre-Raphaelite Model, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Nov. 8th, 2014. Retrieved 01/15/2021.
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